Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning and Humility

I’m taken with this notion: as we get older, continuing to learn is an expression of humility. There are many implications of this perspective for our personal and professional lives. Moreover, there’s a real challenge here—similar to what we discussed regarding transcendence.

I’m writing a longer article on this notion this week and would love to get your thoughts on the idea in particular and any implications you see. You can either post here or email me directly at


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Memorable Messages

Some of my own memorable messages came flooding back last night, loosed by a drive-time conversation. I was taking Alexandra, our 10-year old daughter, and her friend to swim at the YMCA. En route, the subject of science came up because they had just visited a health clinic on a field trip. Then Alex’s friend said it, the classic: “science is hard.” As an educator, all the alarm bells and warning whistles went off – particularly given my sensitivity to the importance of gender issues in teaching math and science. So I probed a bit more.

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

She went in to a long explanation about how a series of other people had told her about how hard science was, giving me at times exact quotes. At 11, she was already convinced that science was not for her.

We kept the conversation going for a bit and I tried with all my might to convey some counter communication. We talked about how science could be incredibly fun, full of discovery and adventure. We talked about how easy the basic process of science was (we even used kid-speak to talk through the observation, hypothesis, testing, reporting, conclusions, and sharing cycle of science) and how neat it would be to be a part of making discoveries that made life better—or better yet, saved lives! Alex and her friend perked up and began talking about things they wanted to discover or make. I’m sure they were humoring me until we got to the pool; but, it was still fun to hear them talk about science without fear in their voice for a little while.

Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence is a must read to really get the power of these memorable messages. Seemingly off hand comments and throw away lines can turn into mind wiring realities—particularly for those following every word of a parent, teacher, coach, or pastor. Positive and negative comments that we might see as trite or silly end up shaping the way people think for years at a time—for a lifetime for some. Indeed, in student focus groups, I’ve heard so many students talk about how they were told early and often that “math is hard,” “girls aren’t good at science,” or “you’re not college material” that I think we should have laws against these phrases ever being used again!

I’m struck by how careful we have to be in our many roles—particularly leadership roles—about the messages we send. Whether we want to accept the responsibility or not, many of these comments stick. The good news, however, is that the positive ones can stick as well. To this day, I hear the voice of a little Filipino pastor—Pastor Cruz—from my childhood church who always took the time to send the most positive and affirming messages my way. His messages were reinforced by a series of inspirational teachers and coaches, most notably a faculty member at Mesa Community College, Jim Mancuso. His message—“it’s amazing how luck seems to follow people who work really hard and care about what they do”—has stuck with me to this day.

What are the messages those you teach and reach will take away? Not the big theoretical treatises, but the little life theories that emerge in conversations off to the side, throw away lines, and jokes. Are we as intentional as we should be about these messages? Or, are we content to let these life changing communiqu├ęs happen by accident?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Treasuring the Work: Portraits of our Students

Battles with educational bureaucracies can be brutal. Seemingly simple requests require forms, signatures, and endless steps in an archaic process journey. Tangling with temperamental technology can tempt the most dedicated educator to throw their hands up in disgust. The bits and bytes seem to conspire to make the task of engaging digital-age students a daunting one. And clashing with colleagues that seem dead set on demonizing the best-intentioned innovations you champion can cause you to ask the question, “Why do I put myself through all this?”

Here’s why. *Portraits of Life: Student Experiences is an exhibit showcased at Montgomery College in Maryland. It’s a tribute in words and photographs to diverse students that chose education as their pathway to possibilities. It’s a powerful look at the faces and places of these students, their stories, and the futures to which they aspire. Moreover, it’s a useful reminder of the reasons most of us champion education—to change lives for the better and, by extension, make our world a better place.

During one of the focus groups we did for the book Practical Magic: On the Front Lines of Teaching Excellence, a seasoned instructor told us one of her secrets. She said that she kept a “treasure chest” of student evaluation comments, personal notes, stories from her journal, and clippings of her students successes packed away in a special box. When we asked her why, she said the reasoning was simple. “There are many times in your career that you question your worth, your sanity, or your ability to really make a difference. There are times you feel like, despite your best intentions, you’ve just been punched in the gut. These are the times you need to cook your favorite meal, pour a glass of good wine, and open your treasure chest. You need to remember your whys for all this work.”

The Portraits of Life showcase is a moving visual treasure chest of student stories. These are powerful whys. None of these stories excuse the sloppy systems, troubling technology, or cultural challenges we sometimes face in education. However, they do give us good reasons to do the important work of improving our schools, colleges, and universities so that we can teach and reach well the students who come our way—students working for brighter tomorrows after often-challenging yesterdays.

*This effort showcasing students followed an earlier project that profiled Holocaust Survivors (absolutely worth a look as well).